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Australian government technology suffers failure after failure

Former government IT leader says Australia’s IT is so bad that if the government were a private sector organisation, it would fail

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Australia’s government technology systems are so poor that were it a private company, it would go out of business or be shut down by regulators. That is the damning assessment of the man who, for 16 months, led the government’s charge to digitally transform itself and its services.

Paul Shetler, formerly chief executive officer of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), and then chief digital officer of the organisation’s successor, the Digital Transformation Agency, resigned in late 2016 following a dispute with Angus Taylor, assistant minister for cities and digital transformation.

Under Taylor’s watch, the role of the digital transformation team has shifted from delivery of transformational systems to development of policy, according to Shetler, who told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the minister had also defunded a series of transformational projects that were in progress to focus on policy instead.

In the past six months, Australians have endured failure after failure of online government services, including the online census, the flawed MyGov portal, the Australian Taxation Office’s multi-day outage late last year, and most recently Centrelink’s issuing of 170,000 debt recovery notices to people who had received social security benefits, with up to 20% of the notices now understood to have been issued in error because of a flawed data-matching algorithm.

The Commonwealth ombudsman has announced an investigation into the Centrelink debacle, but human services minister Alan Tudge is adamant that Centrelink’s IT systems are functioning well and will continue to operate.

But Shetler said it was “appalling that this kind of thing is happening”, that the system was manifestly not working well and would have sent a commercial organisation out of business.

“In any other government, this would be viewed as a really bad thing,” he said. “It is not OK when the government cannot deliver the basic service we are paying for.”

Shetler questioned whether the government had the necessary political will for change.

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Australia’s political landscape has shifted significantly since the DTO was conceived and Shetler was appointed by then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull. In the intervening months, Turnbull became prime minister and was then re-elected with a wafer-thin majority for his coalition government, shrinking his mandate and the opportunity for change.

At the same time, government insiders say there have been attempts to stall digital transformation at both national and state levels. Shetler said Australia’s “incredibly Balkanised bureaucracy” acted as a brake on innovation.

And at state level, New South Wales minister for innovation and better regulation Victor Dominello told the Australian Computer Society’s annual conference in December that bureaucrats could be “the gatekeepers from hell” when it came to the digital transformation of services.

At the same conference, Stephen Conroy, former Labor minister for broadband communications and the digital economy, warned that driving any sort of change through Australia’s bureaucracy was a big challenge as different silos played “various tricks” to protect their patches.

Shetler said that if Australia was serious about digital transformation, it needed to radically upskill the public service so it could develop and leverage modern IT services and put users’ needs first.

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